WHEN A STRANGER CALLS
**** (out of 5)
February 3, 2006
Camilla Belle as JILL JOHNSON
Tommy Flanagan as STRANGER
Tessa Thompson as SCARLET
Katie Cassidy as TIFFANY
Brian Geraghty as BOBBY
Clark Gregg as MR. JOHNSON
Studio: Screen Gems
Directed by: Simon West
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
I’ve been very critical of the horror movie remakes that hit the screens in the past couple years. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was weak, “The Amityville Horror” was silly, and “House of Wax” was a complete abomination.
The latest remake to come out is “When A Stranger Calls.” I expected this film to suck wind like you wouldn’t believe. For the record, I never saw the original film, so I’m not going to fault by comparing the two. Like “Amityville,” the original could have sucked wind as well, and I wouldn’t know any better.
When the film started, it felt like the run-of-the-mill teenage horror flicks from the 1980s. A pretty, virginal girl is at school. She’s got boyfriend problems and girlfriend problems. And she’s been grounded for using the telephone too much. To pay back her parents, she has to baby-sit that night for a wealthy doctor who lives in a secluded house on a lake.
The 1980s were my heyday of horror films, so this movie felt very nostalgic to me. These kinds of films aren’t going to win any awards, but if done properly, they can be good, clean fun. And that’s how I approached the movie – as a batch of escapism for a high school Friday night.
Based on the urban legend of a babysitter getting threatening phone calls, the movie is far from unpredictable. But then again, how many horror movies out there aren’t?
The first half is a bit heavy-handed with the sound design and music, but the rest of the direction takes a slow build in suspense. Instead of painting the town red with stage blood, “When a Stranger Calls” makes some deft choices in the use of tension and suspense.
Look, we all know that there’s really a killer out there. We all know that the babysitter – and the kids she’s babysitting – are in grave danger. So we know that the house cat jumping out of the shadows is just a tease to a greater climax. In a film like this, you can’t avoid the cliches.
But what happens is that the cliches are turned upside down. What we expect to happen in a horror film is used against us, baiting us in a different way. Director Simon West makes some great calls by not putting the killer in a mask and front-loading the movie with so many red herrings that we get numb before something truly threatening happens.
“When a Stranger Calls” is an extremely simple film. Most of the movie takes place in the house alone with the babysitter, and it doesn’t get boring. The tension builds slowly throughout, even though we are all waiting for that classic line of “The calls are coming from inside the house!”
Another aspect of the film that was well done was the direction of Camilla Belle, who plays the babysitter. Sure, much of her job is to look pretty and act scared, but she does well with that. She may not win any Oscars in the future, but she can have a mighty fine career as a scream queen.
Plus, her character isn’t the terrified and stupid girl you’d normally see in a movie like this. Aside from one scene where she goes to check the guest house, there’s really nothing she does that falls in the standard stupid moves of a girl in a horror movie. Oh, and she fights like a wolverine when confronted by the killer, which is great to see.
When all was wrapped up with this movie, I was very pleasantly surprised. In a culture of gore and splatter films, it’s nice to see a real nail-biter with well done suspense for a change.